Mar 4, 2014; Clearwater, FL, USA; Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Cliff Lee (33) warms up before playing the Toronto Blue Jays at Bright House Field. Mandatory Credit: David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

Fantasy Baseball: The Secret to Identifying Sleeper Pitchers

I’ve longed toyed with an experiment where I only spend $9 total on pitching. But I’ve never fully sunk to that level of crazy.

But I think there is excellent value among pitchers and I do regularly spend no more than $40 total on pitching and have won many a league doing it. In fact, I wrote a post that went step-by-step into how you’d assemble a $40 pitching staff for your fantasy team, leaving $220 to splurge on hitting. Even though that post was written last year the principles still stand. In fact, it’s interesting reading because you can see how many of the pitching suggestions I made turned out to be true value picks.

But what if you wanted to identify your own list of value pitchers? Well, I’ll tell you.

Baselines to Evaluate Pitchers

First, I establish a few baselines and make a list of pitchers that exceed all those baselines.  I use:

  • SwStr% above 8.0%
  • BB% (Walk Rate) below 7.5%
  • K% (Strikeout Rate) over 17%
  • K-BB difference above 12% / OR a Command Rate (K/BB) over 2.7

These baselines are chosen for a variety of reasons. Remember, if you are looking for a value pitcher, you want a guy who has excellent underlying skills who either pitches much better than people give him credit for or who is on the cusp of a breakout.

SwStr% is an excellent indicator for fantasy baseball pitching. SwStr% stands for swinging strike percentage and it measures the percent of pitches that the pitcher throws where the batter swung at and missed. If a pitcher has a SwStr% over 8% it shows that he has at least one pitch that can make a hitter look foolish.

BB% is also another excellent indicator. Simply put, you don’t want a fantasy baseball pitcher that gives up a lot a walks. Not only is it problematic for his future ERA, but it has a direct negative impact on his WHIP, an important fantasy baseball category.

K% is key as 99% of fantasy leagues count strikeouts as a pitching category.

K-BB difference (or Command Rate) is where walks and strikeouts come together. If a pitcher strikes out a ton of batters it means he’s working deep into the count to get to strike 3. Ball 4 may occasionally be collateral damage, so don’t punish him because he his BB% creeps close to the 7.5% baseline. As long as he’s striking out 12% more guys than he’s walking, you should be considering him for your fantasy team.

Others may simply measure it by Command Rate and target guys that strike out 2.7 batters for every 1 they walk. That’s fine. I’m of the opinion that there’s no reason to stress over how you measure it; just make sure you measure it. You must target pitchers who strike out considerably more batters than they walk.

Add Some Juju

Fangraphs is an excellent tool for sorting these lists. I’ll link SwStr% and use that particular stat baseline as an example.

You come up with 63 pitchers in 2013 who had a SwStr% over 8.0%, with Doug Fister just making the cutoff. But Chris Tillman comes in at #64 with a 7.9% rate. This is where you use a little common sense and let Chris Tillman slide through if his BB% and K% numbers make the cut. (They don’t. His BB% sat at 8.1% for 2013.)

But it’s these borderline cases where you need to apply your own little juju and make a judgement call. Cliff Lee scores OFF THE CHARTS when it comes to K/BB ratio, but he’s one of baseball’s elite pitchers. You won’t get him at a value. You have to dig for value.

As a general rule I’m very generous when it comes to borderline cases. I’ll gladly include them in my first list then apply a couple other measures to them to further separate the wheat from the chaff. To the borderline cases I’ll add:

  • GB% (Ground Ball %) – If the pitcher is otherwise borderline for my list, but gets a lot of ground balls I’ll keep him on the list as it’s an indicated he won’t give up a lot of home runs that will kill his ERA.
  • Contact% under 80 – If hitters make contact on under 80% of the pitchers total pitches, I’ll keep him on the list.
  • Examine Context – Use some common sense. Is he trending in the right or wrong direction? Is he young and can take a step forward. If he’s borderline, but there is a cause for reasoned growth, I’ll leave him on the list.

Final Cuts

From here you’ll have 30 guys or so. Of course, this list will include Clayton Kershaw and others of the game’s elite pitchers.

Remember, you’re looking for value. You are looking for sleepers; every fantasy baseball owner can identify the superstars. You have to continue to cull the list, truly refining it until unearthed some precious hidden gems.

SPOILER ALERT: Want to skip the hard work and just see the sleepers for 2014? Not so fast, you’ll have to click here: 2014 Fantasy Baseball Sleeper Pitchers.

Tags: Cliff Lee Fantasy Baseball MLB Pitchers Sleepers

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